Why al Qaeda might be the biggest winner of America's airstrikes on ISIS

In the first round of airstrikes that began last night, IS wasn’t the only target. The United States also hit positions belonging to the Khorasan Group, an al Qaeda-linked group that intelligence agencies allege has been planning an imminent attack in Europe or the United States. Warplanes also hit targets affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s recognized affiliate in Syria.

But those strikes may not be enough to stop an al Qaeda resurgence — and may not even be intended to. Statements from both U.S. Central Command and President Barack Obama suggest that the strikes against non-IS targets were designed exclusively to disrupt this planned attack and that future U.S. strikes will be more narrowly focused on the Islamic State. Underscoring the limited scope of anti-al Qaeda bombing, the initial round of strikes against Khorasan didn’t attempt to take out the group’s leaders.

If the United States, satisfied with having disrupted the Khorosan Group’s plot, moves forward with a narrow focus on IS targets, it may create an incentive for individuals and groups within IS, an al Qaeda offshoot, to defect back to the mother organization. Al Qaeda’s leadership seems to understand this: In a series of moves that have flown below most analysts’ radar, al Qaeda appears to be deliberately positioning itself to snap up as much of its rival’s manpower as possible in the event of a continued air campaign that focuses on IS.